A rudimentary stage of construction

“I hope you’re having fun, and not too sad!” This was the parting sentence of a voice message left me by a European friend, the unorthodox English as so often neatly capturing the sentiment, midway between my last blog entry and this one. She was responding to the information that since the two weeks of holiday that followed my last update, I have been struggling in an almost total vacuum at work, unable to stay in one country for longer than a few weeks and adrift in my professional remit.

Leave had been wonderful: a succession of friends and family and time in England, Wales, and Scotland packed into an expeditious two weeks, but was soured by a desperately disorganised return to work. In the handover from one boss to another all the things that had been repeatedly promised before I went away were simply not done; no visa, no contract, no job description, nothing.

In the end I went to Kenya as a kind of default option. I had two meetings with my new boss: in the first he told me the reason my paperwork was undone was that I wasn’t a priority, and in the second he removed around 70% of my job description (that I had written) because he didn’t see the value in it. He didn’t replace it with anything, but said there might be something for me to do around July. Two months later, that remains the last interaction I’ve had with him.

I’m now writing from Kenya again, with thirty of the intervening days between then and now spent in Ethiopia. Mercifully the majority of those thirty days were busy, the Ethiopian Country Director and Head of Programmes keen to take advantage of my presence and largely undefined purpose. For three weeks or so I was involved in research and analysis on internally displaced people and refugees in Ethiopia; hardly my area, but I found with a modicum of direction and structure I was suddenly able to be effective again, and enjoyed it.

Addis Ababa itself is somewhat less developed than I had framed it. Very safe, yes, and home to a huge number of UN, African Union, and East African regional government bodies, but also dirty, lacking in infrastructure, and short on things to do. Meeting people has accordingly been slower than in many other cities, and I was grateful for four whole weeks in a row to begin to establish some tentative friendships. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the city is its expansion. I was amazed to read Evelyn Waugh writing in 1930 on a visit to Addis that “The whole town seemed still in a rudimentary stage of construction. At every corner were half-finished buildings…” – this is exactly my impression of it today, nearly a full century later. I look forward to discovering the city a little more fully over the coming months.

I realised recently that my challenge was not to elicit the fundamentals of management, but to incorporate the absence of management into a structure that allows me to work. It took me a while. July brings the vague promise of new projects, but in my lack of faith in external factors I have enlisted two friends in more senior positions to give me their excess tasks. The hope is that this will provide me with a steady source of things to do, not worrying too much about whether I’m “supposed” to be doing them or not, and enable me to be constructive without requiring anyone’s time.

The subsequent challenge is to break out of the lethargy that I’ve sunk into over the last few months. I haven’t been able to stay in one country for more than a few weeks since the turn of the year. That may sound dynamic or exciting, but in truth it’s draining, especially as it’s the result of disorganisation and a lack of will to do anything about it rather than being driven by goals. Even worse has been the lack of a clear role. The combination has become dislocating and demotivating, and in this brief few days in Kenya my objective is to work on my mental approach to the coming months. I have one more week here, another week in Addis, 48 hours in UK, and then (hopefully) will be able to stay in Ethiopia for a few months at least. I want to make the best of it.

 

What I’m listening to:

  • Dorothy Ashby, In a Minor Groove
  • Antoine Brumel, Missa Et Ecce Terrae Motus
  • The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico

What I’m reading:

  • Peter Godwin, Mukiwa
  • Kate Fox, Watching the English
  • (Finally finished) Aeneid
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor
  • Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute
  • Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

 

Hargeisaland

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I flew to Hargeisa on a Saturday and left for work at 7.15 on Sunday morning. Losing a weekend ordinarily would be a cause for resentment, but in this case minimising empty time was a good thing. There is very little to do in Hargeisa, especially if you don’t have an established group of contacts outside one’s own organisation, so half a day to unpack was about right. There was no food in the house when I arrived: meals were provided twice a day, but not on Fridays and Saturdays. Typically of DRC/DDG, no-one tells new arrivals this. I ate bread found in one of the fridges.

The guesthouse is a spacious two storey building, unusually for Somaliland without an accessible roof but with a little terraced area outside. There are 11 bedrooms, but during my stay there were never more than seven filled. Guesthouse life meant that only one person was there for the duration of my stay: around ten other people in total arrived, left, or did both during what turned out to be only four weeks.

The office had changed since my last trip. We stopped renting the old complex, what had previously been a school, and moved into a three storey office block. Happily it was much closer to the guesthouse, although until I arrived and put my foot down the driver still arrived at the same time, 7.15am, making us some 40 minutes early to work every day. The new office was very new, the concrete stairs noticeably uneven, the water supply barely reaching to my second floor. Outside my office was a balcony upon which mugs, flasks, teaspoons, a box of teabags, and a jar of Nescafe and sugar were presented at 9am every day. One of the flasks contained Somali tea, which is delicious. It tastes strongly of cloves and so sweet it makes me wince.

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We had our bags searched thoroughly, every zip and pocket checked, and were metal-detected before the gate into the office is unlocked for us, one at a time. A herd of camels walked past my window most mornings at around tea time. I shared an office with Muhamed Ismael, Mukhtar, and Ismael Abdi. Later we were joined by a charming Pakistani who also moved into the guesthouse and I did much of exploring of Hargeisa with. Mukhtar helped me with hello, good morning, thank you, and goodbye in Somali, and tried to teach me see you tomorrow, a formidable composition which proved a step too far. Muhamed Ismael sheepishly admitted to being an Arsenal fan and after much investigation and phone calls added me to the office Fantasy Football league. I am 13th.

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I was underworked, sadly for the context. The days were nine hours long because the Somalis stopped for prayer breaks and had an hour for lunch. Lunch for the internationals was brought from the guesthouse in little metal lunchboxes, and was usually rice or pasta with fish or vegetables. I ate on the balcony. January and February is winter in Somaliland so it was not as hot as envisioned; I usually wore a jumper or jacket.

Free time in Hargeisa was a different beast. Much of my week revolved around managing long stretches of time with nothing to do. Normally something to be maximised and looked forward to, here it was not exactly avoided but was certainly treated warily. Going out to a restaurant or friend’s compound was possible, but only around once a week, if that. Otherwise we were confined to the guesthouse. On my one excursion out of the office to a conference at a hotel I met a middle-aged man working for one of the EU’s maritime organs. He had been in Hargeisa for a year and a half and compared it unfavourably with being in prison. “At least there you know you didn’t choose to be there,” he said, half joking.

As an introvert I coped better than many; I read a lot, wrote, listened to music, ran on a treadmill for the first time. On the weekends I sat outside in the sun and watched with delight the weaver birds, Borussia Dortmund yellow and black, building their magical cocoons in the tree, being reminded of poring over my dad’s bird books as a child. One of the seven cats, Elán, the largest, oldest, and most domesticated, adopted me. He had belonged de facto to the previous Country Director and clearly missed the attention. I remember her saying that the cats were therapeutic, and they were: as I stroked Elán, feeling how fluid and cephalopodic he was compared to a dog, it occurred to me that living in such a conservative society meant physical contact was absolutely minimal. I would occasionally shake hands with other men, and that was it. Elán demanded my attention, sitting on my laptop keyboard or shoving himself against my book until I tickled his ears or chin, at which he would sink his claws into my legs in delight and start purring like a helicopter.

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I was happier. The weather was good, the food was good, the Somalis were lovely. Work was a little slow but I was glad to be away from the politics of Nairobi. Hargeisa began to grow on me: it has restaurants and coffee shops, good ones, and I had a couple of friends in other organisations. I would go over to Mine Action Group or HALO and drink smuggled whiskey on their rooves, listening to the de-miners swapping stories about Afghanistan and Iraq and partaking in the curious self-effacing humour of the humanitarian community. The curfew was 9pm, unless you had an armoured car, which, as I heard no end of, HALO did and we didn’t. I rode in one a couple of times: they look normal, but the doors are so heavy it takes two hands to move them.

After four weeks, though, I began to feel the tentacles of cabin fever. I wanted to go for a walk or out for a drink. I was living with a handful of middle-aged men of varying degrees of personability, and missed my women friends. My work permit was still processing but I had another three weeks in Somaliland before my annual leave, and then would be based there until October.

Hargeisa

And then we had a security incident. The news arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we were instructed not to leave the guesthouse for the weekend. On Tuesday I received an email from my boss and 48 hours later I arrived blinking back in Nairobi. My work permit was rejected.

Having had too little to do in Hargeisa, Nairobi was a shock. The boss was leaving and the organisation going through a significant restructure. I was put in a meeting with two Regional Advisers and told that management didn’t have the capacity to “spar with us” as much as they would like; with an average age of 29 and a combined 11 months of service in the organisation, we were designated a “self-managing team”. I worked until 8 or 10pm most nights that week. I couldn’t stay long; Nairobi was over its limit of foreign staff, Hargeisa obviously not an option, Kampala was full, and Mogadishu was judged unwise given the elections there had only just finished. I was sent to Addis Ababa. On a tourist visa, I have now spent a week sitting in a guesthouse on my own. I have four more days here before a much needed break in UK.

What I’m listening to:

  • Sybille Baier, Colour Green
  • Riton ft. Kah-Lo, “Rinse and Repeat”
  • Card on Spokes, As We Surface EP
  • Sons of Kemet, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do
  • Burial, Untrue

What I’m reading:

  • Still Aeneid
  • Aldous Huxley, Mortal Coils
  • Emmanuel Katangole, The Sacrifice of Africa

Challenging environments

After a 48-hour turnaround in Nairobi I flew to Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s north-western Turkana County. I was to spend ten days there interviewing staff in our field offices about the cross-border work they’d been doing with Uganda. It was only a 90-minute flight but landing was like arriving in another hemisphere: Turkana is essentially desert. The ground shimmered in the sun.

I was welcomed by Raphael, the burly, good-natured Programme Manager, who introduced me to four somewhat sullen staff and Pius the driver. Pius spoke no English apart from “fine” and “seatbelt”. I stayed a couple of days in Lodwar, little more than a village really, with three or four tarmacked roads that simply stopped and turned to murram near the edges of town. It was dusty. The electricity failed several times a day, sometimes for five or six hours at a time, taking the air conditioning with it. The normal daytime temperature was 36ᴼ.

 

I stayed in the grandly named County Palace, a little hotel complex past the Save the Children compound and opposite a smartly hand-painted road sign indicating Lumpy Bumpy Lane. County Palace had half a dozen little huts, some single-occupancy, some double, surrounding a spacious courtyard with plastic deck tables and single speaker that broadcast Radio Maisha every waking hour. Radio Maisha appeared to deal mostly in jingles and adverts, and loudly promoted phone-in competitions with cash prizes of ten to a hundred dollars. The A/C in my room was jammed on 29ᴼ. Dinner took two to three hours to prepare, even when it comprised no more than a stack of chapatti and a plate of oily spinach. Some mornings I awoke to the brief, desperate squalling of the day’s chicken attempting to resist the inevitable.

The next eight days were two whiplash circular field trips out of Lodwar into the desert. For the first I was part of a three-vehicle convoy with staff from two other NGOs. We drove south, stopping at Lokichar, Kainuk, and Nakwamoru before looping back north through Lomeremudang. We sped through the desert at sixty kilometres an hour, criss-crossing each other’s dust clouds and listening to execrable techno mixes on the stereo. Some of the villages we passed were scarcely believable, tiny clusters of huts a hundred miles from anywhere. Some of them were riddled with bullet holes. How did their occupants get water? What did they do when they got sick? We passed herds of goats, fat and brisk, and occasional groups of languorous camels.

After three days we returned to Lodwar, a booming metropolis of civilisation with wifi, running water, and roads as smooth as waterslides. Over that weekend I bade goodbye to the staff from the other organisations and was lucky to be able to visit Lake Turkana, hidden behind a row of palm trees that sprouted abruptly in the middle of the desert two hours from Lodwar. The lake was vast, big as a sea, and so flat that people, Jesus-like, a hundred metres in had water barely over their ankles.

Four more days in the pickup followed, looping east this time, towards the Ugandan border. The driver had a mixtape of ten tracks, two each by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jermaine Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Rick Astley, that he played on repeat for the duration. I saw Mount Moroto, the burned-out husk of a truck that had caught the sharp edge of an inter-clan dispute (“These are not serious guys,” scoffed Ekuwam; “if they were Kikuyu they all would have been back tomorrow to collect the metal to sell”), and a mine where ex-raiders were pulling rubies from 30 feet within the earth. I learned how to eat ugali, a kind of super-viscous porridge, by rolling it into a ball with my fingertips, pressing with my thumb, scooping a mouthful of beans or greens into the depression, and hoisting it neatly into my mouth. It was a privilege. Nonetheless, by the final couple of days I was missing my friends, tired of being bitten relentlessly by ants, mosquitoes, and flies, wearied by the heat, and irritable at spending four to eight hours a day being smashed around in the back of a four wheel drive. I was glad when the trip was over.

It was to be my last travel for some time. Shivering in the Baltic 19ᴼ of Nairobi, I returned to the office and my project on summarising the learning from our borderlands projects. I worked alone and largely unsupervised: a number of personnel changes left me reporting to three people who each deflected me on to another, resulting in a near total lack of communication. For five weeks in a row I sat at my computer and shuffled information around. It was rainy season. I tired of living with colleagues, whom I started my day with at breakfast at 7am, sat next to in the minibus that arrives like an automaton at 7.20 every morning, sat next to in the office for eight hours, and then came home and spent the evening in the living room with. It made it hard to switch off from work, and work was frustrating and dull.

My disillusionment spread to Nairobi. Although my work is very similar to the last time I lived here, this time I am within a set of expectations, social frameworks, and security guidelines that previously I wasn’t. I no longer discover new areas of town; I barely ever catch a matatu or a boda-boda any more. There’s nothing forbidding me from doing those things, it just wouldn’t make sense: I live within a set of demographic norms that regulate my behaviour as effectively as any written contract. I mix by default mostly with a class of people for whom English is a second or third language and use words like palliative and neologism and germaine, and bump into each other delightedly in Istanbul, Goma, and New York. I drink cocktails regularly, and think $7 a pop is a good price at which to do so. I grew bored and lethargic, and was not enjoying myself.

The routine was broken by Christmas. Over the four-day weekend I booked a trip up Mount Kenya and found myself in the company of a Kenyan, a Spaniard and an Australian. We walked for four days: seven kilometres the first, 11 the second, ascending steadily, watching the peak, Point Lenana, grow ever nearer. We slept on bunks in wooden huts and ate noodles and fried meat and vegetables prepared by the team of porters. Day Three was the big one: we left our hut at 3am with the goal of reaching the peak for sunrise. We climbed the steepest part of the mountain for three hours in the dark, scrambling up fine, loose shingle that every few steps ripped our feet from under us like Velcro coming apart. Stars carpeted the sky like the lights of an infinite city. It was -5ᴼ without the wind. We cursed each slip in the pitch dark and the freezing cold, leg muscles burning, trying not to think that we were five hours away from breakfast, and arrived at Point Lenana soon after 6am.

The peak was a place of profound communal misery. People from other groups sat around as in an outer circle of Hell, anger and confusion with the world upon their faces. We huddled in the lee of rocks and were slack and silly with pain. A disgustingly cheery middle aged lady posed for a photo with a watermelon. The Australian later confided to me that the only reason he didn’t kill her was because he was spending his remaining energy on not throwing up. We were so frozen we could barely use our cameras. I put my head between my knees. We sat for fifteen minutes in pugnacious silence before the Spaniard announced that he felt he was going to faint. We descended.

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It got better from there, although even three hours later at breakfast, choking down chlorine-y purified water and sliced bread wrapped around lumps of defrosting peanut butter, I was wondering why I was doing this to myself on Christmas Day. The temperature rose steadily, though, and the landscape was spectacular. For the rest of the day we walked steadily downhill, the terrain changing around us: rockland, senecios, bamboo, woodland, lemongrass. After 24 kilometres we arrived at the final camp and had a celebratory Tusker.

The fourth day was just an hour or so’s walk until we were picked up by the car and taken to a matatu stop back to Nairobi. It was good to shower. The combination of sun and wind burn left my skin peeling in the sun vampirically for days afterwards, but the more the ache in my knees receded, the more it felt like it had been a good experience.

I was back to work the next day, and troughed. That week I was forced into sending a polite but firm email to my bosses saying I was unable to work effectively and things had to change. They did, just enough, and three weeks have passed tolerably since then. I delivered a presentation to thirty people on my borderlands project and was received with moderate approval. I wrote an article on it to submit to a journal. I am largely free to do what work I want, which produces inertia, frustration, and enjoyment in various doses, often at the same time. It’s an odd working environment and one that probably will feel better in the long term than the short, but now, for better or worse, is about to change. On Saturday I move to Hargeisa.

 

What I’m listening to:

  • Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile
  • Alikiba, “Mwana”
  • Yusef Lateef, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack

What I’m reading:

  • Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
  • Virgil, Aeneid

Nairobi and Hargeisa

It was a non-transition, in a way; arriving in Kenya felt very much like going into something normal. It had all the trappings of a big change: the many, frequently rushed goodbyes, packing my Limehouse room into two rucksacks and ferrying the remainder to my parents’ house, and flying for many hours with a stopover in Addis Ababa’s great pretender of an international airport, all generating an expectation that things would feel adventurous.

Arriving in Nairobi felt, therefore, unbalancingly routine. Perhaps this was hardly surprising given that I’d lived there for several months not very long ago, and was even living in a familiar area of town. The traffic was still terrible, the wealth divide still stark, the people still laughing. October is a lovely time of year to arrive, not too hot, lilac jacaranda lining the streets and not yet wilting, the giant carapace of the sky clear and blue as jazz. It was good to be back.

I now stay in a guesthouse owned by my employer and share with up to five others, depending on how many people are passing through Nairobi in a given week. As one of only two long-termers it has the feel of living in a hotel, with the attendant perks and drawbacks. I was initially put in a bedroom without access to a bathroom, and it took delicate negotiations with Agnes, the clipped and impenetrable bookings secretary, to move into one of the better rooms. After two weeks of increasingly pointed discussions she moved me into something that is not so much a room as a wing, with a balcony the size of some of the spaces I lived in in London and a family-size bathroom. I was mollified.

My work was slightly unclear to me before leaving UK, and I’m conscious therefore that many of you aren’t sure what exactly it is I’m doing. Let me explain.

I work for Danish Demining Group, a subsidiary of the better-known Danish Refugee Council. DRC focuses on refugees and migration, while DDG focuses on the causes of migration and displacement, especially armed conflict. As well as its eponymous demining wing, DDG has an armed violence reduction wing, which is where I work.

My project is looking at armed violence reduction specifically in relation to border areas in the Horn of Africa. The logic of treating borderlands as areas of particular interest has three explanations: one, Western donors are presently very concerned with international migration, for obvious reasons, of which border crossing in eastern Africa is an important locus. Two, many eastern African countries have recently discovered oil reserves in their hinterlands. Vast tracts of territory that since independence had not been worth governmental attention are suddenly the subject of sharp contestation. Three, border areas are crucial in regional terrorism dynamics, especially with regards to Somalia’s Shabaab.

At present I’m concentrating on the Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia border, known as the Mandera Triangle, and the Kenya-Uganda border, known as the Karamoja Cluster. Until January, my job is to collate DDG’s institutional knowledge on border security and management and publicise it on a standalone website. The idea is that any organisation interested in border issues will be able to quickly see who’s doing what where, and identify gaps and opportunities to work together.

I now work in the office, unlike my last time when I worked from home. I much prefer it: meeting people, attending staff meetings, and just being around is much more three-dimensional than sitting alone at my kitchen table all day. It does bring challenges though. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Outliers about something called the “power distance index”. The power distance refers to how directly subordinates are culturally permitted to challenge superiors. In the USA, and to a similar extent Britain, speaking your mind directly is basically encouraged, especially in the world of work. If you spot a mistake, you are normally expected to report it; if your boss tells you to do something that you can see a weakness or oversight in, it normally reflects well on you to raise it with him or her. The power distance in these cultures is short, and these countries are near the bottom of the index. According to Gladwell, in places such as Korea and Colombia the power distance is much greater, and dealing with tricky work situations must be done far more circumspectly.

I don’t know how much the index is accepted social science, but it’s a useful way of framing differing cultural norms. I would say that Kenya is nearer the top of the index than the bottom, and it’s taking more getting used to than I might have thought. For example, Veronica has my key to my office. She knows that I need it. My assumption is that she will find me and give it to me. This is not the case: she will wait respectfully with the key until I go and ask her for it, even if I don’t know that it exists and spend three weeks politely asking my two office-mates if I can use theirs. In another example, I need to have a meeting with David, and offer him a time on Tuesday or Wednesday. Whichever I confirm, he says the other would be better. After several oscillations I conclude David is pitifully inept, before realising that suggesting another time is a polite way of saying he can’t do either.

In many ways it is learning a new language. My speaking and listening skills are still rudimentary, and the real target of my irritation should be my own literacy level, not the people whose language I’m learning.

For reasons like this my ex-flatmate Barbara, mercifully still in Nairobi, frequently chaperones me around the city in my non-work life, puncturing my vision of myself as a streetwise Nairobian blending perfectly into the crowd. On hearing I was going to a clothes market one weekend she insisted on joining me, and not only because she needed a new pair of work trousers. We wandered into the knotted centre of Toi Market where the cubicle stalls are so stacked with goods you can no longer see the stalls themselves at all, an entire geometry of Vietnamese apparel. Barbara ducked into a tunnel of khaki trousers and began full and frank discussions with its caretaker about the dimensions of her hips. She eventually found a pair that she liked but were too long in the heel. “No problem”, assured the vendor, “the tailor will adjust.”

“How much?” demanded Barbara.

“Very cheap,” evaded the vendor.

“How much?” Barbara called after his disappearing shoulder. “If I have to pay a hundred shillings for this because I’m with your lily-white butt I’m going to be furious,” she hissed at me.

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Later, hidden behind a curtain at the back of the stall, I took my jeans off and began trying on the pairs of work trousers that the vendor had given me. I had a paranoid fantasy of a terrorist choosing that exact moment to set off a bomb in the market and having to flee, my picture propelling me to international fame as the mzungu running away from the Toi Market Attacks in pink stripy boxers.

As well as Barbara I met up with a small handful of other old friends, hanging out in their flats or plunging into Nairobi’s glittering, pulsing nightlife. Nairobi’s affluent young are incredibly stylish, the first generation born and brought up in a black middle class and accordingly able to mix a deep exposure to Western fashion with the work of professional African designers. We drank cold beers in the warm nights, watching drunken old men dancing with the gorgeous hookers in the cantinas or going to rooftop bars resounding with Tanzanian r’n’b and Nigerian dance tracks.

After a month, I was sent on my first trip to another DDG office and made my first visit to Somaliland. I flew via Addis again, feeling smug at being part of the small crowd who transferred to a separate terminal for the Hargeisa flight and scowling at two blond tourists for making me look less intrepid.

East Africa is red and green: Somaliland is white. White sand, white walls, white dust, white goats. Hijabs shone turquoise, red, or golden like paint on canvas. There were few people on the streets, which were wide, and often gave onto areas of rubble or scrub with black plastic bags clinging to pointed surfaces. In the centre of town smartly painted banks and hospitals stood out against the weary housing blocks, no structure apart from the minarets rising more than two stories from the ground.

Hargeisa was bombed to the ground by Somali dictator Siad Barre in the late 1980s but won its freedom from him in 1991. It is an irony of the international system that Somaliland, with a bicameral parliament, multi-party elections, its own military, and an independent currency is recognised as a state by zero governments worldwide, while Somalia, barely able to pacify its own capital city since Barre’s demise, is recognised by every government in the world.

Concrete blast absorbers the size of hippos lined the entrance to every compound, watched over by guards dressed in fatigues and carrying old, wooden-stocked rifles. I didn’t see anyone else carrying a gun. We weren’t allowed out alone or after 9pm, and for the week I was there I saw only the office, the guesthouse, and the inside of a van with tinted windows. I went out once, to a shop, full of Turkish biscuits and fizzy drinks. The few photos I managed to take were snatched on the way to and from the airport from the back of the moving pick-up. It didn’t feel unsafe at all, and whether that validated or invalidated the pervasive security I couldn’t tell.

I spent a week there attending a security training. The corridors of the office were lined with disabled ordnance. The Somalilanders laughed a lot and talked more, naughtily picking up their phones and checking their emails despite being told repeatedly not to. They chewed gum with their mouths wide open, filling the lecture hall with obscene quiet squelching. I learned how to say hello and thank you in Somali and practiced frequently, but either my pronunciation was so bad or they were so unprepared for a white newcomer saying Somali words it never elicited a reaction. The men were either indifferent or would greet me with big grins and laugh at everything I said. I would reach towards the women for a handshake before their stillness would remind me. They must have thought an awkward half lurch was a traditional British greeting. In the guesthouse in the evenings I played with Ninja and Elan, the house cats, and watched movies or football with the expats.

In the airport at the end of the week, passengers’ bags were passed through four X-ray machines and our carry-on luggage was unpacked and searched through by hand. We were asked to switch every electronic item on and off in front of the security staff. The painstaking diligence was dispiriting and slow (why is there such a strong urge to get through bureaucracy even when there is only a waiting room on the other side?) but also faintly inspiring. Not just a national security incident but the reputation of a would-be nation is at stake in the security of Egal International, and if was my nation, I’d be diligent too.

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I landed in Kenya at 1.30 on Friday morning, not looking forward to catching the minibus to work at 7.30. As soon as I switched my phone on it chirped with a message from Safaricom, my Kenyan network provider: “Welcome home!” it smarmed. OK, I thought.

 

What I’m reading:

  • David Shields, Reality Hunger
  • Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

What I’m listening to:

  • Ben Pearce, “What I Might Do”
  • Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidananda and P’tah the El Daoud
  • Nina Simone, “Ne Me Quitte Pas”
  • Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • Arvo Part, Tabula Rasa

 

Lamu, Suswa, and London

At the start of March I was sent for my first ever trip into “the field”, which in this case was a tiny island called Lamu off the northernmost tip of Kenya’s coast. I was to do a series of interviews with a range of people who would in some way be affected the LAPSSET project, a giant infrastructure investment by the Kenyan government that will connect a new port near the island to a network of roads, railways, and oil pipelines that reach across northern Kenya. I had no idea how to go about doing this, and despite travelling with two other staff from Nairobi, I felt totally reliant on three DRC staff who were based in Lamu itself.

The team leader was Muhammed, stockily built like a weightlifter and with short greying hair. He single-handedly made our trip work, arranging and re-arranging interviews, sorting out logistics, and informing us of all the political and diplomatic information we needed to get people on our side. He worked incredibly hard for us while also attending his own busy schedule of meetings and workshops. He stopped only to answer the call to prayer five times a day, the last of which in the early evening meant his day was done, when his earnest frown would relax into a smile as he wandered off to the mosque.

The near-silent Rachel had a perfectly circular face and hair which, apart from a thin streak of grey emerging on one side, was exactly same colour as her skin, which reflected well her aura of being complete in herself. She smiled almost always but rarely spoke, contributing instead through her easy laugh that showed her teeth and shook her shoulders. I hoped she was somebody’s mother.

Juma had huge long legs and big hands and feet, which made his ability to appear and disappear even more unlikely. He guided us round Lamu like Virgil, popping up with his rucksack hitched high on his shoulders like a schoolboy to point us to the right office or hotel lobby before vanishing again. At the end of our interviews as we stepped squinting back into the white sun he would invariably be waiting for us, listening to Tanzanian pop music on his telephone headset and swatting the mouthpiece away as he picked the next track.

Being a coastal town, Lamu is Islamic in heritage, having been a trading post for ships that used to come down from the Middle East. We stayed in a lovely house built by the Omanis a few hundred years ago, full of wide open spaces and low-slung sofas around the edges. Lamu is built from coral rock and mangrove timber, giving the buildings a beautiful granulated texture.

Lamu’s main mode of transport was donkey. They were all over the place, tethered to drainpipes, wandering free, being ridden by youths who’d devised halters from bits of rope. As pleasing as this was at first, the novelty soon wore off. There were piles of droppings everywhere and any street not on the seafront reeked of piss.

It was 30ᴼ by the time we finished breakfast at 8am, and so humid that even in the shade I sweated throughout the day until the sun went down at around 7pm. On top of this were the flies, which we wafted at like absent-minded orchestra conductors as they settled constantly on our arms, our faces, our drinks, our notebooks, and our food. Fishermen carried the fruits of their day’s labour through the streets, in pungent baskets full of red and blue catch, or on strings with tiny sharklets, aghast fish, or stringy octopi hanging off them. One evening a young man struggled past me with a barracuda fully five feet long in his left hand, his right held horizontally away from his body as he tried to avoid dragging the fish in the dirt. Another guy tried to sell me a live lobster, its eyes swivelling blankly.

Our interviews went well and we were lucky to be able to meet a wide range of people, from the newly installed County Commissioner to representatives of hunter-gatherer groups from remote areas of the mainland. The seafood was fresh and delicious, and I loved the specialty fruit juices that bartenders would blend from baskets of fruit on the counter. Even half full of crushed ice, the drinks were warm by the time I finished them. There was very little alcohol: Lamu is a traditional Muslim town. The women mostly were fully covered in long black dresses and brilliant headscarves that flowed around their shoulders. My favourites were the honey yellow and the turquoise, but despite them being very beautiful I avoided taking photos.

Back in the refreshing, dry 28ᴼ of Nairobi, I woke at 5 the morning after getting home to go hiking on Mount Suswa, a crater around two hours’ drive from Nairobi. With a small group of young Kenyans I climbed through inclining scrub for two or three hours before hitting the edge of the crater itself, from where it was another two hours upwards to the peak. The crater was thickly covered in little trees that rustled together in wind and sounded like the ocean, and underneath them sprouted a layer of lemongrass that made the whole mountain smell fresh and clean. After hitting the peak there was still around 14 kilometres back to the minibus, too far, really, and those among our small group who weren’t used to hiking suffered. I reached the van with shaking legs and feeling slightly nauseous with tiredness after walking so far in the baking sun after a draining week and threw myself down on the grass. The guide, who had walked the whole way without so much as a sip of water, looked at me expressionlessly. “Exercise,” he said, and continued chatting to the driver.

After that it was back to work, and a final few weeks that bounced from fraught to empty, as is the nature of collaborative work. I find myself frustrated that so many things are outside my control, which is definitely a good learning experience, but also satisfied to be working on something intellectually stimulating and (hopefully) that will be in some small way influential in helping Kenya’s rich and powerful make sensitive business decisions.

As I enter my last few days I find myself listing what I will miss and what I won’t. The weather is an obvious one and not worth dwelling on. I look forward to supermarkets where I’ll be able to predict what’s on the shelves and that don’t get flooded whenever the freezers get hit by a power cut. I’ll miss being able to buy freshly grilled corncob for 20p from any busy street. I won’t miss the power cuts, the mosquitoes, or being metal-detected every time I enter a public building. (Public security measures have been in in Nairobi ever since the Westgate attack, although they’re so cursory they’re more annoying than reassuring.)

I’ll miss being able to jump on the back of a motorbike and zoom to any part of the city for a couple of pounds, but not when the driver assures me he knows exactly where my destination is, doesn’t, and then gets annoyed at me for not giving accurate directions on the fly. I won’t miss the traffic, taking my life into my hands whenever I cross Waiyaki Way, or being a pedestrian in general. Nairobians as a public (but not in person) are somewhat inconsiderate and pushy, as I suppose the citizens of any overcrowded city are. I’ve often been unable to cross a road because a driver won’t stop accelerating, never mind slow down, or had to jump a ditch or go onto the road while running because the people walking towards me on the pavement won’t so much as rotate their shoulders to create a space.

I’ll miss my mental inventory of football shirts, which I realise I’ve been half-consciously building ever since arriving. Manchester United and Arsenal are comfortably out in front, followed by Chelsea, with Manchester City, Liverpool, and Spurs lagging some way behind. From Italy the usual suspects of Juventus and AC Milan dominated, with an honourable mention to Roma, while from Spain Real Madrid, interestingly, far outstripped Barcelona. Bayern did extremely well overall, and Dortmund, appropriately, punched above their weight. The Old Firm was won 1-0 by Rangers. The real pleasure was in these one-offs, which included Ipswich Town, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Valencia, FC Köln, and even, poor fellow, Aston Villa.

I’ll miss my flatmates, my balcony, and being able to afford a pleasant living space with a big kitchen. I won’t miss working from home, which often led to days of feeling isolated and cut off from the outside world. I look forward to seeing my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since July, and of course my family, including my newly arrived nephew who I will soon meet for the first time. And mostly I look forward to seeing Katy, whose graciousness and warmth from afar has helped me both to bear the low moments and enjoy the many privileges of living here.

I fly back to London this weekend, hoping to find a job quickly. Thanks for reading – I hope to see you soon.

Nairobi, still

A combination of persistence and luck a few days after my previous entry allowed me to stay in Nairobi. One of the many NGOs I had approached needed a researcher to start work immediately on a project that they had fallen behind on, and, happily for both of us, I was qualified and able to start immediately. I spent the remainder of December and January mapping large-scale infrastructure projects across East Africa, including pipelines, power stations, and railways, and looking into how they might affect security in the areas they’re being built in.

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At the start of February I handed over the research to a team of consultants based in Canada, and am now writing up the results of some studies into local stakeholder engagement. Infrastructure projects tend to bring in a lot of opportunities for local communities, but also risks, and my NGO has spent several months studying how construction companies can work with local people to make sure projects are mutually beneficial. I have to read technical reports into things like the difference between one and three radio broadcasts a week in illiterate communities, but I also get the satisfaction of contributing to a project that might help prevent a farmer’s house being bulldozed or a construction worker being shot at.

It’s fantastic work experience. I feel extremely lucky to be gaining a breadth of experience, in-country, for a well respected international NGO.

And, of course, I get to live in Nairobi. On being offered my contract I used Airbnb for the first time and found a flat just outside the city centre. Flatsharing is not really established in East Africa as part of the yuppie culture, but is beginning to catch on and I had a choice of ten or so once I’d put in my search parameters. I’ve again been lucky to find a very comfortable flat with three friendly flatmates, two Americans and a Kenyan. A far cry from my warehouse attic in Limehouse, I now have cable TV, an en-suite bathroom, and a balcony, from where I can have a coffee and watch birds, butterflies, and even once a lost-looking monkey in the trees outside.

I work from home and visit the office occasionally for a meeting. I’m glad I don’t have to commute. Nairobi’s roads were built in the 1970s for an urban population of 800,000. The city now holds around 4 million people, and (somehow) the growth rate of vehicle registrations is even higher than the growth rate of population. Traffic is a major feature of life and one that must cost the city thousands of hours of productivity every day.

At rush hour, queues for minibuses called matatus stretch whole blocks, hundreds of people at a time shuffling down the road for their turn to get into a 14-seater vehicle. For many Nairobians the charge of around 20p a journey makes a matatu the only affordable way of getting around. If you’re rich, you can spend eight to 10 times the price and get on a motorbike taxi, a boda-boda, and if you’re rich and prudent you can pay 10 to 15 times the price for a taxi or an Uber.

However you travel, being on the roads is somewhat anarchic, the stultifying traffic both a cause and effect of lawless driving. Boda-bodas in particular do whatever it takes to keep moving, overtaking around corners, driving on the wrong side of the road, and if things are really bad, simply mounting the pavements and forcing pedestrians out of their way. As someone who walks as a matter of preference, this irritates me. I once gestured pointedly at the road as a motorbike honked past me on a pavement, and the driver frowned at me confusedly. In my mind, there is a rule, written or not, that as a walker I have at very least priority of use of the sidewalk. Here, that assumption does not hold.

In autumn 2015 I was commuting to and from an internship in Oxfordshire. The last leg of my journey was on a bus from the centre of Oxford to my parents’ house. The little bus shelter was far too small to cover all those waiting, and I was endlessly fascinated to see every evening, even in the rain, the commuters form an immaculate queue down the street away from the shelter. No-one had to communicate to form this queue and, as far as I know, there is no law requiring it. There is no need; rules and regulations, and the benefits of obeying them, are part of the psychological profile of Britain. When I was younger, this used to either grate or amuse me, and I loved my time in countries where following rules was much less part of the collective mental landscape. Now, whether it’s the effect of several consecutive years in the UK or just that I’m more conservative as a venerable 25-year-old, I find the inefficiencies and disorganisation of the developing world annoying more than affirming.

I don’t want to become one of those people who chooses to live in a less developed country and then complains thoroughly about the poor customer service, the traffic, the politics, the corruption, and the expense of imported luxury food items. Nor, however, do I want to settle for appalling traffic and dangerous road use because really what can you expect from Africans.

Apart from the traffic, Nairobi is a fun place to live with all the opportunities and attractions of any major city. I’ve started taking French classes three evenings a week at the Alliance Francaise. I’m enjoying them in spite and not because of my teacher, a Monsieur Shadrach, who with his shaved head and neat goatee looks uncannily like a black Walter White. Every evening he arrives five minutes late and performs a showcase of laziness and dis-incentivization with a consistency that deserves some sort of documentary recognition.

Shadrach’s classes consist of working through exercises in a textbook, and his sole pedagogic technique is the question-to-the-group. I’ve had about five minutes of teacher training in my life and even I know that just throwing a question to a group is poor practice. We don’t reply because we don’t know the answer, because the answer is too obvious, because we know the answer but not the French vocabulary, because it’s awkward when more than one person begins answering at once, because people are unconfident, because we’re not sure if the question is rhetorical, because every answer apart from the one M. Shadrach is thinking of is incorrect, or for any other reason that dangling a question in front of a group of people who speak very little of a language is a bad idea.

Shadrach, however, is a firm believer that if a question is met with silence, it needs asking again, louder, higher pitched, more insistently. If that doesn’t work, he coos “cla-ass? Cla-ass?” and asks a third time, at which point, to give him his due, we’re in such despair that someone usually offers a reply to make him stop repeating himself. As if that wasn’t enough, he also has a habit of chirping at the end of every instruction, explanation, or question, “ca va? Ca va?”, a habit that I’m somehow unable to zone out and find incredibly irritating.

In another example of my inability to tolerate situations not to my liking, I’m changing classes next week.

My contract finishes on the last day of March; although I’m just beginning to feel like I know the city, I’m already a dozen applications in to the next round of job-hunting. Having got this current role on my CV, I’m feeling much more positive than last time. While I’m waiting to find out what the next step is, I’m lucky to have interesting work to be getting on with and good weather to enjoy. It was a gamble to come to East Africa, and I’m very happy that things turned out so well.

Nairobi

Kenya. A country I feel familiar with, and instantly more at home in than Ethiopia. The people are friendly – some a little too friendly, such as the bus conductor who held my hand for nearly a whole block to encourage me onto his vehicle, and a likely gentleman who greeted me with a slap of a handshake before informing me I was going to pay for his ride home – but in general I feel welcome as a foreigner, and I enjoy being greeted hi by people I walk past in the street.

The bougainvillea is disappearing day by day but still provides wonderful splashes of colour throughout the city. I smugly told Katy on arrival that I never get sunburned and promptly got burned on my first day, feeling weak and prickly by nightfall. Since then the weather has mostly been overcast, but still warm enough that my standards have completely readjusted. I went for a walk today in 20ᴼ heat and took a coat in case I was cold.

Nairobi is a more developed city than Addis (although maybe not for long), and comparing the two brings home to me the staggering functionality of Western cities. The work required to make sure that on thousands of streets no traffic light switches off, no pavement crumbles into mud, no road loses its surface, is enormous, overwhelming to imagine.

And Nairobi is a big and ever-growing city. Smart, expensive malls seem to be on every junction, and even in residential areas the streets are full of pedestrians. There are more white people wandering around than I remember, although taxi drivers and market stall owners tell me that tourism has dipped since Westgate and Garissa. The Pope’s face is up on billboards in the centre and people are proud of his visit, their enthusiasm undimmed by the huge crowds he drew, the road closures, or that it rained for the duration of his two days in town. The smell of petrol pulses on the streets. Buses are covered every inch in artwork, announcing devotion to Manchester United, Spiderman, Rihanna, or Jesus.

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Public transport works well, in the sense that if I need to go somewhere, there will be a bus that takes me there. The problem is knowing which one to take. The system is completely arcane, the majority of buses without any visible number or route information, instead interpreted by conductors who are more interested in your thirty shillings than your precise destination.

What seems opaque to me is easily managed by local people, of course, so I’m sure working out bus routes is just a matter of familiarity. What I think would take me longer to get used to is the traffic. The traffic in central Nairobi has transcended an urban planning issue to achieve a sort of elemental status, the citizens rendered insensitive to it through its sheer scope. On Monday I had a meeting in a building that would, on empty roads, take perhaps 25 minutes to reach from my flat. It took me two and a quarter hours each way. The queues have to be seen to be believed, and at any time a given road is as likely to be in complete gridlock as not.

Having the meeting felt like a victory. Simply getting through to an NGO feels like a small success, and a face-to-face conversation rather than a phone call or a reply to an email even more so. Prospecting for work is a strange activity and my mood surfs up and down depending on how I feel the search is going. Zora Neale Hurston argued during the Harlem Renaissance that hierarchies are not simply technical; that it’s possible to attain the trappings of a certain class but still be excluded from it if you’re not the right type of person. In my own case I’m talking not about huge social injustice but the finer points of privilege, yet in a tiny way I’m encountering the same truth about the NGO sector. I have my qualification, but I’m still not part of the club. Whether I find work here or not, I’m angry that at 25 and with two excellent degrees I’m still reliant on someone doing me a favour to get even the most lowly of job opportunities.

If nothing changes, I will be home in a week, and will never know if I was attempting something impossible or whether one more phone call or email would have been my lucky break. After so much exertion of making contact with people and attempting to sell myself, there is a curious feeling of things being out of my hands, and my efforts being unrelated to whether there is a prize or not. Or to put it another way, if someone does employ me, it will be through no different approach on my part than to all the people who didn’t employ me.

That is getting a little ahead of myself. There are several days to go during which anything might happen. And, I have to remind myself, if it doesn’t, there are worse things than flying home and looking for work again in my own culture and in the same country as my friends and family. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to knowing what I’m doing.